Friday, May 30, 2014

Armchair BEA -- Middle Grade/Young Adult

On today's Armchair BEA topic, Middle Grade/Young Adult: I have been surprised and interested to learn how many adult readers--and book bloggers--are passionate fans of Young Adult (YA) novels. I don't think I realized, before I became involved with the blogging world, how many readers over the age of 18 CHOOSE to read YA novels rather than adult fiction . . . not because they are librarians or teachers or parents reading along with their teens, but because they truly prefer, or particularly value, the YA genre of book over any other.

Now, I have certainly read some YA as an adult. Tpyically, these have been YA novels that have received so much popular attention or buzz that I was intrigued enough to read them, or in a few cases one of my book clubs selected them. These include The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, JK Rowling's Harry Potter series, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. And I enjoyed every one of these beautifully-written, compelling books. They are all wonderful novels; and although they may have been penned for teenagers or children, deserve the wide audience they've received. To me, these novels truly transcend the YA genre--they are simply great books that I would recommend to most readers. I know I am far from alone in being an adult who "crossed the border" into YA for these books. I remember commuting on the DC Metro during the years that each new Harry Potter book was released; I was always amused to see how many other commuters--women and men--were reading a copy of the latest in the series (that was back in the days before any of us had e-readers, naturally! I kind of miss the connection you'd sometimes make, back in the day, with a complete stranger reading a book that you loved, or were reading at the same time. But I digress....)

I've read some terrific Middle Grade books over the years as well. These I've read along with my children, when they have been assigned to them in school. Some of my recent favorites include Holes by Louis Sachar, Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan, and Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. I have read and very much enjoyed parts of Rick Riordan's Heroes of Olympus and Kane Chronicles series with my kids as well.

But I don't typically choose to read Middle Grade or YA fiction over novels written for adults. Please don't misunderstand me; I don't wish to knock the genre or imply that it is somehow lesser. We all have different interests as readers. My interests typically fall in the realm of literary fiction and historical fiction. I am curious, however, about those adults who prefer YA ... what is it about YA that draws you to it over other fiction? And what recommendations for recent YA books would you make for other readers who don't typically venture into the genre? One of things I've most appreciated about participating in Armchair BEA this week is hearing some terrific recommendations for books that lie outside of my usual reading interests. Sometimes it's a good thing to have a reason to travel outside of your usual boundaries--you never know what you might discover.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Armchair BEA -- Beyond the Borders

Today's Topic: Beyond the Borders. It’s time to step outside your comfort zone, outside your borders, or outside of your own country or culture. Tell us about the books that transported you to a different world, taught you about a different culture, and/or helped you step into the shoes of someone different from you. What impacted you the most about this book? What books would you recommend to others who are ready or not ready to step over the line? In essence, let’s start the conversation about diversity and keep it going!

I love this topic! Let me start by saying that I think every great book transports you to a different world--that, to me, is one of the hallmarks of stellar fiction. When you are experiencing the worldview of a fictional character, then you are transported into their world; you are stepping into their shoes. This, in essence, is the purpose of reading, I believe ... to enrich our own lives by experiencing something different. So I think, in a way, this applies to any novel, even if a book's setting and time period is your own or the characters could be your neighbors. As a reader, you are still crossing the border out of your experience into something new. We do this every time we open a new book.

But, of course, some books bring you to a culture or country completely different than your own, and reading these books can be particularly enlightening and pleasurable. Some writers who have transported me "beyond the borders" include:

Zadie Smith, a British writer whose layered and wonderful novels On Beauty, White Teeth, and NW consider themes of race, class, gender, and immigration.

Jhumpa Lahiri, Indian-American author of the magnificent novels The Namesake and The Lowland, plus the short story collections Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth. I haven't read Lahiri's short stories yet, but after yesterday's terrific Armchair BEA discussions on shorts, I will be adding those to my TBR pile.

Junot Diaz, celebrated Dominican-American author of the startling and stunning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and the collections This is How You Lose Here and Drown.

Marjane Satrapi, with her fascinating comic book-style memoir Persepolis about her childhood and adolescence in revolutionary Iran. This was a "border-crossing" experience for me not just in terms of the setting and topic, but also the genre--I have read very few graphic novels or comics, but I loved it.

Porochista Khakpour, Iranian-American novelist and essayist, and author of the literary, satirical, and beautifully symbolic Sons & Other Flammable Objects and The Last Illusion (new this month, and definitely in my TBR).

What books and writers have transported you outside of your borders?

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Armchair BEA -- Novellas & Short Stories

On today's Armchair BEA topic of novellas & short stories: I am a lover of novels. As a reader, the long prose narrative is the form of fiction that has always most appealed to me. I would say I have probably read more plays, in fact, than short stories in my lifetime. I have certainly read some passionate defenses of the short story form, and I agree, in principle, that the short story has much to offer. Short stories are often very tight and well-written; they can be thought-provoking and hit you with a powerful and emotional punch at the end.

And yet . . . I have struggled with the short story form, I must admit. To me, they often seem to end abruptly, and I am left wanting more. Sometimes stories feel, somehow... unfinished. A great novel, by contrast, allows the opportunity for a reader to fully immerse themselves in the world that the author has created ... to leap into the minds and hearts of the characters and follow them on an emotional journey, to experience the richly imagined sights, sounds and smells of a place or time period different from one's own. A gifted novelist builds layers and reveals aspects of characterization or plot over time, and one of the joys of a reading a novel is uncovering those layers and aspects as the book progresses.

But let me give some love to the short stories or novellas that I've read recently and I have truly enjoyed. Karen Russell, first of all, is a master of the form and has received wide critical praise for her short stories. I first experienced her work by reading her novel Swamplandia! (read it, if you haven't--it's wonderful!), and because I simply felt I HAD to have more Russell, I tackled her short story collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove and her novella Sleep Donation. I recommend them both; but honestly, I still love her best as a novelist. I also want to mention Junot Diaz, another darling of the literary fiction world, and deservedly so. In This is How You Lose Her,a collection of linked short stories mostly centered on the romantic experiences of his semi-autobiographical character Yunior, Diaz's prose just crackles, and his fresh and unique voice shines through the pages. Some of his stories simply startled me.

Some short story collections I would like to read include Emma Donoghue's Astray and Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies. Any other recommendations? As a reader, how do you respond to short stories and novellas?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Armchair BEA -- Author Interaction

Ok, so for today's Armchair BEA topic of author interaction... Since I am still a very new blogger, I haven't had the opportunity to have any in-person interactions with authors yet. I have, however, participated in a few Twitter exchanges with authors. I've interacted on Twitter with Chris Bohjalian, Roxane Gay, Sally O'Reilly, and Porochista Khakpour. And Melanie Benjamin favorited my tweet about visiting the Lindbergh estate. And as absolutely goofy as it sounds, for a book lover, that can be very exciting stuff!

But, you know, the whole concept of authors reading your reviews ... I had never thought much about that until I created my blog recently and started tweeting my posts. I had been posting reviews to Goodreads for years--and although I suppose I always knew that some authors read their reviews there, it somehow seemed sort of anonymous. When I blog, by contrast, especially when I am reviewing an ARC before it has been released, it seems more immediate. There's an inherent responsibility to write a fair, proper, appropriate, and just all-around polished review, especially if the author may read actually it. And, you know, I don't want the author to think I am a complete doofus. :) I feel more pressure now!

But I'm curious ... What do you think about including the author's twitter handle when you send a review out on twitter? I know some bloggers do this routinely, but others think it's awkward. I'll admit I've done this only after writing a good review of the author's book.

Armchair BEA Introduction

So, I'm a very new book blogger . . . pretty much clueless about blogging, the Bookternet, etc. I'm not new to loving great books, of course, but I jumped headfirst into blogging knowing, um, ZILCH, about how to do it. Yeah, you know, not the best idea. Anyway, apparently it is de rigeur for book bloggers to gather at BookExpo America in NYC this week. I am so green that I didn't even know about this until it was too late to arrange to attend. And I live in a nearby state. I'm not even sure what bloggers DO at BEA ... but book giveaways and meeting for drinks have been mentioned a lot on Twitter, so clearly I am missing out on something very important!

Fortunately, I have just discovered something called Armchair BEA that allows bloggers to participate virtually .... "a conference for book bloggers in the comfort of our favorite chair." Perfect, and I'll add a glass of wine tonight so I don't feel so bitter missing all the "meeting for drinks!" Alright, so Armchair BEA asks that you introduce yourself by answering a few questions. Looks like I'm a day late to the party, but here goes:

Please tell us a little bit about yourself: Who are you? How long have you been blogging? Why did you get into blogging? Where in the world are you blogging from?

I've been blogging for only a little over a month, from the lovely (truly!) state of New Jersey. I got into blogging because I love to talk about books... and although I participate in 2 books clubs and have been posting reviews on Goodreads for a few years, I needed a place to really let loose my inner Book Goof. And, you know, not have people laugh. I'd like to find other Book Goofs to connect with!

Describe your blog in just one sentence. Then, list your social details so we can connect more online.

Ok, one sentence: "My blog Readers' Oasis is brand-spanking new, and no doubt full of ridiculous newbie mistakes, but also, I hope, has some insights to offer about new literary, historical, and contemporary fiction and assorted bookish topics."

On Twitter, I'm @Leila_A_Rice. Very happy to connect with other book bloggers on Twitter! My Facebook account is not book-related, at this point (do bloggers make a separate FB account for their book-related content?) and I haven't ventured onto Instagram yet. Pinterest scares me. I'm interested in what other bloggers do; how many different social media platforms do you really have to participate in to be considered active in the blogging community?

What was your favorite book read last year? What's your favorite book so far this year?

Last year, tie between Khaled Hosseini, "And the Mountains Echoed" and Amor Towles, "Rules of Civility." This year, so far, I think "Frog Music" by Emma Donoghue.

What does your favorite/ideal reading space look like?

In a lounge chair, beach or poolside! Or in the rocking chair on my porch. In winter, in my armchair, the piece of furniture closest to the fireplace. Oddly, other family members seem to think they can sit there.

Share your favorite book or reading related quote.

"Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them." Lemony Snicket, Horseradish.

(By the way, credit to Amber of Shelf Notes for the cool Armchair BEA image above!)

Monday, May 26, 2014

Summer Reads, Part I: What Makes a Great Read for Summer?

It’s Memorial Day, the traditional start of summer (even if the calendar tells us it is still three weeks away) . . . and with that welcome change of season, people who love to read often begin to think about their summer reading list. Summer, for many of us, conjures up afternoons by the pool or the beach, reading lazily in a lounge chair, with a cool drink by your side . . . or perhaps reading on the plane as you jet off to an exotic vacation locale. Many people feel that they simply have more time for reading in the summer months, even if they are not carting a book or Kindle along to the pool or going away on vacation. Sometimes, less demanding summer work schedules or the temporary disappearance of children’s nightly homework routines allow more opportunity to curl up on the couch, or maybe the deck, with a great book on long summer evenings.

One thing that I’ve observed, however, is that not everyone has the same idea of what makes a great “summer read.” Publishers and booksellers seem to think that women, at least, all want to read a piece of fluff that has some connection to beachiness in June, July, and August . . . Have you ever noticed the preponderance of summer releases sporting covers with a beach or pool scene, or a woman under a sun umbrella or wearing a big floppy hat? These books tend not to be the most literary of material.

And for me, this begs the question, why does a summer read have to be “light”? I like a non-taxing and easily digestible novel now and then, believe me . . . But really, I’d rather a summer novel be fully absorbing more than anything else. My pool or vacation reads don’t need to be about summer or have the obligatory “family-on-vacation-and-many-truths-emerge” theme. I just want my summer books to be engrossing and compelling. I want something that occupies me completely on the plane, or keeps me so wrapped up that I don’t even notice that the sun has started to set after a long and wonderful day on the beach. Sometimes, yes, that’s a lighter, fluffier read; sometimes it’s even a thriller or a mystery, which lie outside of my usual reading interests. But to me, a fantastic summer read can also be a highly literary novel that immerses me into a wholly different world.

What kind of book do you consider to be a great “summer read”?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Review: Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

Lucky UsLucky Us by Amy Bloom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amy Bloom’s Lucky Us is a little gem of a novel about family, loyalty, and the ways in which people reinvent themselves. Bloom’s complicated, unusual characters are often the very opposite of “lucky,” yet they make their own luck. Poignant, funny, and richly imagined, Lucky Us deserves its place as one of the most anticipated works of literary fiction to be released in the summer of 2014.

The novel follows two sisters, Eva and Iris, who share the same father, Edgar, an English professor with forged academic credentials. In 1939, the plucky teenaged sisters flee their stifling Ohio town and journey to Hollywood. Beautiful and impetuous Iris dreams of film stardom. Thoughtful Eva, who has been abandoned by her mother, is Iris’ devoted sidekick. When Iris finds herself entangled in a movie industry scandal and blackballed by Hedda Hopper, Eva and Iris travel across the country with their friend Francisco, a gay Mexican makeup artist, and begin a new life in wartime New York. Iris and Edgar, employed as a governess and a butler in the Long Island house of newly rich Italians, find love in unlikely places. Eva, meanwhile, seeks to find her own destiny as she makes a living reading the fortunes of others.

I loved the theme of identity and reinvention in Lucky Us; these resilient characters survive by creating themselves anew, sometimes over and over. They know how to “size up and seize opportunity,” as Iris says. Or in the words of the invented academic Edgar, “The stars do fuck-all for us; you must make your own way.” As with 1940s America itself, Bloom’s characters rise up out of tragedy and shape a new destiny.

Bloom also considers the meaning of family and loyalty, as the ties that bind people together here, as in life, are not always blood ties. Abandonment and the ways in which we fail those we love figure prominently as well. Book clubs that read literary fiction will find much to chew on here.

With beautiful and clear prose, Bloom tells the story mostly from Eva’s first person narrative, interspersed with letters from various characters, some sent and some unsent. The epistolary entries, however, are sometimes distracting and not always completely successful. The chapters, at times, have the feel of short stories rather than parts of a fully developed novel. Some readers may find the ending, though satisfying, overly abrupt. Despite these flaws, Lucky Us is a lovely novel with unforgettable characters, and it deserves a wide readership.

I received an ARC from Random House, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Review: An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

An Untamed StateAn Untamed State by Roxane Gay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You don’t so much read “An Untamed State” as experience it. Roxane Gay’s novel is that powerful, that realistic. It’s intense, immediate, and yes, at times almost unbearably brutal. Highly literary and yet paced like a thriller, “An Untamed State” is one of the novels of 2014 that should not be missed.

Gay consciously invokes a fairy tale with her opening lines, “Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped …” Her narrator, Mireille Duval Jameson, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, lives a charmed life in Miami as a lawyer, wife to a handsome all-American man, and mother of a baby boy. On a visit to Haiti, the fairy tale ends abruptly when Mireille is kidnapped by a gang of armed men just outside the gates of her parents’ magnificent estate. Her father, a wealthy construction magnate, refuses to pay her ransom. The reader follows Mireille through her thirteen days of captivity under the control of a barbaric, merciless man she knows only as “the Commander,” and in the aftermath, as she seeks to recover her identity as the woman she was before her capture.

Gay forcefully grabs hold of the reader from the start and doesn’t let go. Yes, there are a few passages that are not easy to read, but Gay controls the pace well, and very few readers will be able to abandon the novel before reaching the conclusion. Interestingly, for me, the most riveting parts of the novel were not the scenes of Mireille’s captivity, but those of her recovery. Mireille’s ordeal has damaged her spirit and sense of self almost more than her bruised and battered body, and I felt desperate to know if those deeper wounds would heal.

This novel, though, is about more than one woman’s traumatic ordeal. As engrossing and suspenseful as Mireille’s story is, that is merely the top layer. More broadly, “An Untamed State” can be read as a parable about the power that men wield over women. It is about the wide chasm between rich and poor. It is about survival and its costs. It is about the “untamed state” of Haiti. This novel is about any and all of those things--and more no doubt, that I did not perceive; thus, it is much more richly layered than it might first appear.

Gay’s prose struck me, at first, as too stark and direct. Yet I soon realized that the style was perfect for the unsparing, arresting story she had to tell. Her characters are nuanced, from Mireille’s husband Michael—genial, easy-going, and yet helpless when Mireille needs him most—to Mireille herself, a prickly and sometimes difficult woman who, in her own words, does “not love easy.” I loved Gay’s choice to make Mireille a woman who was not always likeable, who couldn’t stop herself from doing the wrong thing at times. She is flawed, like all people, which makes the reader even more deeply connected to her.

I will offer a few small quibbles; in a few chapters Gay switches from Mireille’s direct and unstinting voice to Michael’s less convincing perspective, and I found this distracting. There is a plot twist at the end that I felt was unnecessary. Yet overall, “An Untamed State” is a captivating and masterfully written novel, and with it, Gay cements her place as a compelling new voice in American fiction.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. View all my reviews

Friday, May 16, 2014

On My Strange and Embarrassing Reluctance to Start "The Goldfinch"

I am, rather abashedly, finally--finally!--starting Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch. I feel like the absolute last person in the world to read this book.  

For Heaven's sake, the novel was published on October 22, 2013.  As anyone who's been following the book world even slightly for the past 6 months will know, The Goldfinch received wide critical acclaim and landed on many best-of-2013 lists.  Tartt won a number of literary prizes for the novel, including the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for 2014.  

And aside from all the praise & the prizes, The Goldfinch is exactly the kind of novel I am usually anxious to read. It's literary fiction and the plot revolves around a painting ... I love paintings! And there's suspense, there's love, there are weird underworld characters!  How much more enticing could a novel possibly be?

Even more importantly, everyone is TALKING about it.  Or they were a few months ago.  I hate it when everyone else is yapping about a book and I haven't read it (unless it's a piece-of-junk book. Then I feel superior because I HAVEN'T read it. Yes, I know--book snob.  Guilty as charged).  Anyway, The Goldfinch simply sounds like the kind of thing I should have lept at as soon as it came out.  And, in fact, I've had a copy downloaded on my Kindle since November.  There it is, sitting sadly unread, mocking me ... if, you know, books can mock.  Which I think they probably can. 

So, ummm... It's now May of 2014.  Why haven't I read this darn thing?

A couple of things likely factor into my reluctance.  I've read Tartt's The Secret History.  Twice, actually... and that was one time too many.  The first time was back when it first came out, in 1992.  I was 24 and in graduate school, so of course I swooned over it.  A circle of elite, bookish classics students, a Dionysian rite/orgy---wow!  I was disappointed that no one else in my graduate history program seemed interested in organizing any midnight Bacchanalia, actually.  Without the murder, of course. I figured maybe I just had the bad luck to attend the wrong school, the Bacchanalia-free school.  In any case, upon re-reading The Secret History nearly two decades later for a book club, the novel seemed pretty silly and, honestly, just tedious.  So even with all the acclaim for The Goldfinch, I couldn't help but wonder if Tartt's new novel would appeal to me.

And then the other stumbling block for me, I think, has been the sheer length of the book ... all 771 pages of it.  Let me hasten to note that weighty tomes aren't usually a problem for me.  Why, I have a copy of Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy (1,368 pages) right here in my study.  Ok, an UNREAD copy, so maybe that's not the best example (another book that's mocking me!).  But my point is, page length has never stopped me before.  What did kind of give me pause was the number of people who commented on the book's length after reading it.  I kept hearing people say, "Loved it... but it's so LONG!" Or, "It was fantastic, but should've been at least 200-250 pages shorter!"  Even Stephen King, author of a few longish books himself, ends his (highly favorable) review of Tartt's latest with the suggestion, "don't drop it on your foot."  All of that combined to make me wonder if The Goldfinch was worth the time investment it would require.

So that about sums up why I haven't read it.  And I'm starting to feel like this is an albatross hanging around my neck!  After all, I started up a book blog last month, claiming I would read all the latest literary fiction, right?  And I haven't read the publishing sensation of 2013, the big prize-winner, probably the most talked-about literary novel in years?  What kind of book blogger am I, then?  Oh, the shame, the shame!  I feel like I should take one of  those "dog-shaming" pictures that goes around the internet--a picture of me looking sheepish and holding a sign that says "I haven't read The Goldfinch."  No, no, that's too terrible; no one would expect that, would they?!

Well, I finally decided there was only one solution here... yes, at long last, the time has come to face my shame and plunge into The Goldfinch!  Only one problem: I've received all these Advance Readers' Copies of books from publishers, and I really should spend my reading time on those to build up my blog. So I used one of my precious Audible credits for an audio version.  I'm going to listen to it... all 32 hours of it!  I listen to an audiobook for maybe an hour a day, usually, so it's going to take me a month.  But I'm going to complete this sucker if it's the last thing I do! 

Look for my review of The Goldfinch in about a month, then .... I'm not sure who I'll be reviewing it for, exactly, since it will hardly be a new book.  Nevertheless, everyone needs a pointless task now and then.  It builds character. 

Anyone else out there wanting to start this book, or any other book you have been meaning to read but just haven't? 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Review: When the World Was Young by Elizabeth Gaffney

When the World Was Young: A NovelWhen the World Was Young: A Novel by Elizabeth Gaffney
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Elizabeth Gaffney's "When the World Was Young," set for release in August 2014, is a novel that I wanted to like. The setting in 1940s and '50s Brooklyn Heights seemed interesting, and the advance praise seems to promise a meaty book about passion, secrets, prejudice, and the connections between upstairs and downstairs worlds. But unfortunately, I found the book rather flat, with lackluster characters and an often tedious plot.

The story centers on a girl named Wally growing up in Brooklyn during World War II. Wally is a rather unusual and interesting child, fascinated in equal measure by Wonder Woman comics and science; her closest childhood friend is Ham, the son of her grandparents' African American maid, Loretta. With her father away fighting in the Pacific, Wally's mother Stella returns to medical school, and takes in a mysterious boarder named Mr. Niederman. The boarder, whom we later learn worked on the Manhattan Project, becomes a sort of father figure for Wally. He and Stella embark upon an affair which leads, eventually, to tragedy. The rest of the novel follows Wally as she grows into adulthood, living with the aftermath of her mother's difficult choice and struggling to find her way in the world.

To be fair, the book captivated me in the opening scenes, particularly the celebrations of the community on VJ Day. The relationships between Wally's family members, and their complex ties with the family of their African American maid, hold some interest. But the plot begins to feel formulaic as the novel progresses.

Many of the characters are not fully developed, so it is difficult to feel an emotional connection with them. Wally's grandmother and Loretta are key figures in Wally's life, so I was disappointed that Gaffney drew them with such a broad brush. The character of Wally's mother, Stella, is particularly unconvincing. Gaffney tells us that Stella is a strong, educated, and unconventional woman who loves her daughter fiercely, so her bad decisions seem unlikely and out of character.

There were a few times that I almost gave up on the novel because Gaffney dwells so much on Wally and Ham's fascination with ants. Wally's entomological interest could have been conveyed in a sentence or two, but there are long passages about the queen, the workers, etc, that perhaps should have been cut in a round of tough-love editing.

"When the World Was Young" may garner an audience, especially from readers particularly interested in the time period or Brooklyn. But with so many other intriguing works of fiction slated for summer release, I would not make a special effort to recommend this novel.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

View all my reviews

Review: The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

The Orenda: A novelThe Orenda: A novel by Joseph Boyden
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"The Orenda," by Canadian writer Joseph Boyden, is a throughly researched, well-written work of literary historical fiction ... and yet I struggled with it at times and I would not recommend it to most of my friends. I would rate it about a 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Boyden masterfully recreates the world of 17th century Canada, and the initial contact between the Huron, Iroquois, and Europeans. The prose is often vivid and beautiful. Boyden shifts between three narrators--the Iroquois girl Bird, the Huron warrior Snow Falls, and the French Jesuit missionary Christophe--but their voices are surprisingly indistinct. At times, I had trouble distinguishing one narrator from another. The characters were not as well developed as I would have liked, and consequently I had trouble connecting with them.

My larger problem with "The Orenda" is that the narrative includes multiple scenes of great brutality, including very gory ritualized torture, which were difficult to take. I understand that a realistic account of the early New World cannot exclude some violence. But Boyden's depiction of torture seemed excessive and unnecessary, and without assistance to the reader in understanding and contextualizing the meaning of it.

This novel won critical acclaim and literary prizes in Canada, but I wonder if it will find much of an audience with American readers, even those who love good literary fiction.

I won a free copy of this book through the Goodreads First Reads program.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

What Makes a Great Book for Book Club?

Tonight is Book Club night! Hooray! I can't wait to gather with some good friends over a few glasses of wine and talk about what we read.

I posted a piece last week about the difficulties book clubs can face in choosing their next read (The Biggest Challenge for Book Clubs) . But now I want to consider what makes a particular book a fantastic read for a book club.

Here are some of the elements that I think define a great "book club book":

1. A page-turning plot: The best books for a club are the ones that kept everyone turning the pages, right? There are plenty of wonderful books that are character-driven or focused on relationships and emotions, but a book with a good plot--that everyone feels they simply CAN'T PUT DOWN--is the best way to ensure everyone finishes the book. Plot is not always the most important element for me in a novel, but I think you can't beat a page-turner for a book club. Some of the best plot-driven books my clubs have read include Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl and Liane Moriarty's The Husband's Secret.

2. Something to talk about: The books that really get clubs talking are the ones that make us think. The best kind of books to generate discussion often have complex characters faced with a difficult choice or situation, a central moral dilemma, that can help the group consider "what would YOU do?" A book that is too light and fluffy will not give a club much to ponder... and lead you to chatting about daily life. Believe me, I love to catch up with my friends and I will chat up a storm if no one stops me, but first I want to have a good, meaty discussion on that month's book. A good example of a book that can prompt discussion is Melanie Benjamin's The Aviator's Wife.

3. Something surprising: Some of the best book club discussions occur when everyone has read something that really surprised them. Prime example--the ridiculous, atrociously-written, really kind of earth-shatteringly bad Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. When one of my clubs selected it, I didn't want to read it, and I wondered what we could possibly discuss at the meeting ... but you know what, we could barely contain ourselves! I won't say we had the most literary of meetings that night, but we did have plenty of fun ... and sometimes, I think that's just what a book club needs. So throw in a surprise now and then, just for the heck of it. The choice doesn't have to be poorly written erotic fiction, of course, but an unusual pick--like a thriller or a humor book if your club usually reads serious literary fiction--can mix things up and rejuvenate everyone's interest in the club.

4. A reasonable page length: This sounds like a pretty goofy element to include here, but let's face it--life is busy! The members of your book club all love to read, but not everyone has time to read a 900-page tome every month. Interestingly, one of the most successful discussions my book club has ever had was after reading Stephen King's lengthy 11/22/63, but that novel is such a page-turner that we all devoured it greedily. I believe we also gave ourselves 5 or 6 weeks to read that one. In general, however, most book club selections are better if they are under 400 pages.

My book club is gathering tonight to discuss Frog Music by Emma Donoghue. I loved the book, but I am hearing that everyone else's reactions may be mixed at best. Regardless, I am looking forward to our discussion, because to me, there is nothing better than book talk with good friends! Oh, and, of course, red wine.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Review: O Africa!: A Novel by Andrew Lewis Conn

O, Africa!: A NovelO, Africa!: A Novel by Andrew Lewis Conn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Andrew Lewis Conn’s “O Africa! A Novel,” to be released on June 10, 2014, is an unusual book, by turns fascinating and frustrating. Marketed as a rollicking comic adventure, it veers from slapstick humor to deep tragedy. At times, this seemed a book uncertain of its own identity.

Twin movie-making brothers Micah and Izzy Grand are masters of silent era comedies at a time when “talkie” movies threaten to revolutionize the business. We meet the Brothers Grand in the summer of 1928, filming a typical slapstick comedy on Coney Island. After a rather implausible set of circumstances involving a debt to Harlem gamblers, the brothers and their motley crew of associates embark on a trip to Africa to film several projects, including a silly farce and a serious movie on the history of slavery meant as an answer to the racist “Birth of a Nation.” As Conn writes, “Here they were, a gallery of misfits—a black kid, a Jew fairy, and a circus freak—halfway around the world, pulling levers on the American culture machine.” During their life-changing experiences among an isolated African tribe, Micah and Izzy discover things about themselves, and learn lessons about the power of movies and, most importantly, the power of love.

“O Africa!” is often entertaining and proves oddly moving at its conclusion. Throughout, Conn demonstrates great affection for the era of silent movies, and the novel comes fully alive during scenes about film-making, both as an art form and a business. I especially enjoyed the clever set piece about the first Academy Awards, which even includes an amusing story about the origin of the trophy’s nickname as an “Oscar.”

The plot is absurd, outlandishly so at times. I’m always willing to suspend my disbelief as a reader—up to a point--but this was perhaps too over-the-top. The novel shifts in tone rather abruptly from a madcap romp to a much darker, sometimes even raw and disturbing, tale. This felt disconcerting and left me struggling to understand the author’s ultimate intent. Some characters in this novel are fully drawn, while others seem merely caricature, even cartoonish.

The premise for the novel seemed very intriguing and attractive, but I don’t think this book quite lives up to its promise. Overall, “O Africa!” is an uneven read.

I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Thursday, May 8, 2014

Review: Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

Astonish MeAstonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Maggie Shipstead's elegantly written new novel “Astonish Me” immerses readers in the strange and rarified world of professional ballet. "Etonnez-moi," or "astonish me," ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev famously exhorted his dancers in the Ballets Russes... I don't know if the novel "astonished" me exactly, but it fully absorbed and charmed me, and its nuanced characters even made an appearance in my dreams.

Joan Joyce, a dancer in the corps de ballet of a major NYC ballet company in the 1970s, begins to realize that she lacks the star quality to be a prima ballerina. Her coke-sniffing roommate Elaine has been promoted to soloist, but true success in the intense, brutal dance world seems painfully out of Joan’s reach. Joan helps the dashing Russian star Arslan Rusakov defect, driving the get-away car in his escape... but she soon finds herself replaced as his lover and dancing partner by a more talented Russian ballerina.

Joan rebounds from this rejection into the arms of her childhood friend Jacob, a man who idolizes her. She retreats into the quieter, safer life of a wife, mother and dance teacher in suburban California. Years later, when her teenaged son shows astonishing promise as a dancer, Joan is reluctantly pulled back into the orbit of her former lover.

As a teen in the ‘80s, I was fascinated by the glamorous world of ballet, with its thrilling and romantic Cold War mystique. Shipstead ably re-creates this universe and brings the dance scenes to life. The novel, however, is about more than just ballet. Shipstead explores themes such as the relentless pursuit of perfection and its emotional costs, and the difference between obsession and love. “Astonish Me” strikes me as an excellent choice for book clubs; its juicy, operatic plot will appeal to many readers, but it could also provide good fodder for discussions on love, marriage, ambition, parenthood, etc.

“Astonish Me” is not a perfect novel, to be sure. At times, it struck me as perhaps too sparse and not fully developed. Once curled up in this story and in these interesting characters' lives, I wanted to stay there longer. Shipstead reveals the plot’s big “secret” (which surely every observant reader will have guessed) to two of the main characters with a plot device that seems contrived and unlikely. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this highly readable and often mesmerizing novel. Maggie Shipstead, who received much acclaim for her debut “Seating Arrangments,” proves herself again with her second novel, and I look forward to her future work with pleasure.

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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Biggest Challenge for Book Clubs

Book clubs can be wonderful things... In the frenzy of modern life, a book club meeting creates a designated time and place for friends to gather and chat, to share food and wine, and, hopefully to talk, at least a little bit, about a great book. I love book clubs, both in theory and in practice, and I feel lucky to participate in two local clubs in my small town. 

But book clubs are not without their challenges. And one of the biggest challenges a club faces is the selection of what book to read next. 

How hard can it possibly be for a group of friends who enjoy reading to pick a book to read each month? Sounds like it should be a piece of cake, doesn't it? But I have found that this process can be time-consuming, frustrating, and even lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Why is selecting a book so fraught with difficulty? 

Well, for starters, even if everyone in a book club self-identifies as a reader or book-lover, there are many different kinds of books, of course, and many kinds of readers. A group of friends say they all "love to read" and form a club... but WHAT do they all love to read? Serious literary fiction, memoirs, science fiction, chick lit, humor books, etc? Book selection can be full of friction if club members don't share the same idea of what makes a good read. Another stumbling block is finding a truly inclusive process for picking a book.  No one wants to make time to participate in a book club if they feel their voice is never heard.  Even among friends, people can feel marginalized if their suggestions are never selected by the wider group. 

Those are some of the hazards of picking the next read for a book club (and I'm quite certain my friends and fellow readers could think of a few more!). What, then, are some good methods for choosing a book? 

1. Group Consensus: I participate in one club that uses an informal group consensus process; we all bring suggested titles and discuss them as a group. Whichever book seems to generate the most buzz among the members present emerges as the winner. The process is excellent in theory, I think, because it is essentially democratic; the biggest downside is the length of time it can take. With this approach, sometimes the book selection process gobbles up more of the meeting than the discussion of that month's book! Nevertheless, the consensus process has worked well for that particular book club for over four years. 

2. Pulling Titles from a "Hat": My second book club has used this method recently. Every member has the opportunity to add a title to a hat, and once a month, a new title is pulled randomly. The merits of this approach are the relative speed compared to group consensus, and the fact that each member has an equal chance of having their selection chosen. A disadvantage can be that the book titles in the hat may not have wide appeal; the only person guaranteed to be interested in the book is the member who dropped the title into the hat. My club suggests that members only include books that they have read and loved in the hat, which helps avoid that issue. One thing we have noticed with this approach is that titles in the hat can start to seem "stale" after some months; perhaps the hat method works best if the hat is "refreshed" on a regular basis. 

3. Taking Turns: Other clubs follow a rotating selection process in which each member takes a turn at choosing the book. This method seems to have a lot of merit in term of fairness, although it puts some pressure on each member to select a book that will appeal to the wider group. One of my book clubs considered switching to this method a few years ago; we picked a member who was not present to select the first book. I suppose the rest of us thought this was an honor we were bestowing upon our absent friend; in fact, the member drafted into "book choice duty" was rather horrified when we told her about it, and protested that she didn't want the responsibility! We dropped the idea after realizing that not everyone relished the idea of choosing a book for the group. 

4. Voting:  Another option is a formalized voting process (ah, democracy!). The club selects a few titles as options, and all members participate in a vote, either at a meeting or later online. This would probably work well for a book club that has no problem generating options, but struggles with the long discussion process needed for group consensus, or would simply rather spend the time socializing or talking about the current month's book. 

5. Changing Kinds of Books: I mentioned earlier that book clubs can face the challenge of members who prefer very different kinds of books. A book selection method to try to resolve this, and in fact make good use of the range of club members' interests, might be a rotating schedule of genres or sub-genres. For example, a club could switch between literary fiction and lighter or chick lit style books, or try to select one thriller, one historical fiction novel, one memoir, one humor book, etc, per year. I've heard many people say that one of the main reasons they participate in a book club is to read books they would not ordinarily select for themselves; this method might be a way to truly put this into practice. Of course, even if a club choses a sort of "schedule" for what genres of books to read, the club will still need to select individual titles. Still, it is probably easier to pick out of a smaller field--if the club knows that it should find a humor book for July and a thriller for August, for example, it is likely not difficult to build a group consensus on which books within those sub-genres would be good choices. 

No doubt there is no perfect book selection process, and different approaches will work for different clubs, maybe even at different times in a given book club's life. Book clubs may wish to consider varying the process--mixing it up may add an element of interest and keep participation rates high. How does your book club select the next book to read? What works and what doesn't about the process?

Monday, May 5, 2014

Review: Sleep Donation by Karen Russell

Sleep DonationSleep Donation by Karen Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Karen Russell's novella "Sleep Donation" is a vivid and haunting allegory about a dystopian, near-future America suffering from a raging and deadly insomnia epidemic.

The narrator of the story is Trish Edgewater, who works for a Red Cross-like "Slumber Corps" which collects donations of sleep from healthy volunteers and provides transfusions of this life force to the zombie-like insomniacs. The Slumber Corps begins to mine the sleep even of infants to meet the seemingly endless need. Trish's sister Dori had been one of the first insomniacs to die from the mysterious new epidemic, whose causes are poorly understood. Trish is a master at seeking donors; she "pitches" the sad tale of her sister's death, and thus exploits her own grief and her sister's memory. Complications ensue when Trish uncovers the misdeeds of one of the Slumber Corps' heroic founders, and she begins to question the ethics of the entire process.

Whenever I read Russell, I feel like a fall into the rabbit hole of her weird and distorted reality. Somehow, she makes the implausible seem plausible, and the fantastical, immersive worlds of her fiction hold essential truths about our own world. Here, Russell comments about our deep-seated fears of contagion that can't be controlled or contained, and satirizes the media, government, and NGOs in their response to public crises, both real and imagined. She raises questions about need vs greed and our exploitation of natural resources; just as we have taken all that the earth has to give in our bottomless need for more energy, the Slumber Corps extracts the sleep of babies to serve the never-ending need for the elixir of pure sleep.

I particularly appreciated the theme of transfusion in "Sleep Donation." Russell implies that many human interactions are forms of transfusions--of love, of praise, of faith, of sex--and that the success of these transfusions can depend on the match of the donor and recipient. Sometimes, no matter how needed or desired, a transfusion simply does not work. What a fascinating way to view human interactions.

The prose is vintage Russell, sharp and intelligent. This is a quick and engaging read that will satisfy readers of science fiction and fantasy as well as serious literary fiction. My main criticism is that I wanted more--just as with some of Russell's short stories, I found the ending somewhat abrupt, and felt that more of the tale could be told. Some of this, no doubt, is from my own preference for novels... and I hope that we will soon receive the gift--or perhaps, I should say, transfusion--of another full-length novel from Karen Russell.

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Sunday, May 4, 2014

Review: The Objects of Her Affection by Sonya Cobb

The Objects of Her AffectionThe Objects of Her Affection by Sonya Cobb
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"The Objects of Her Affection" by Sonya Cobb, scheduled for release in August of 2014, tells the story of a young stay-at-home mother named Sophie who crosses the line in a desperate effort to hold on to her dreams. Cobb drew me into Sophie’s predicament so thoroughly that I was rooting for her to succeed even though her risky behavior is appalling.

Sophie has taken time off from her career to be home with her two preschoolers. She had suffered through a childhood with emotionally distant, rootless parents and wants a better life for her own children. While Sophie’s husband loves her and wants her to be happy, he is totally immersed in his job at a Philadelphia art museum.  Meanwhile, Sophie struggles with the children and the family finances. After Sophie talks her husband into buying an old Philadelphia row house, she makes an awful mistake. As Sophie searches for a way to fix the situation, she makes decisions that compound her problems and threaten her family.

This book is a good read with well-drawn characters and a plot full of twists and turns.  First-time novelist Cobb raises some truly thought-provoking questions. Why are material objects so important to some people? Is it acceptable to cheat one person if it results in something good for many people? Should we lie to loved ones to protect them? Is it acceptable to steal in order to make a better life for our children?

I am still pondering the questions raised in the book. I think many book clubs would enjoy discussing the issues that Cobb raises.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in return for an honest review. 

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Thursday, May 1, 2014

Review: Dark Aemilia: A Novel of Shakespeare's Dark Lady by Sally O'Reilly

Dark Aemilia: A Novel of Shakespeare's Dark LadyDark Aemilia: A Novel of Shakespeare's Dark Lady by Sally O'Reilly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sally O'Reilly's "Dark Aemilia" is first-rate, gripping historical fiction, full of passion, drama, and sorcery. This novel, to be released at the end of May, tells the fascinating tale of Aemilia Bassano Lanyer, a real historical figure who was one of England's first published female poets... and who MAY have been the "Dark Lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets. In O'Reilly's richly imagined story, the spirited, quick-witted Aemilia is Will Shakespeare's great love and muse, who inspires not only his sonnets, but many strong female characters in his plays. The tempestuous love affair of Aemilia and Will seems doomed, however, and they part, only to meet again a decade later when Aemilia's son is sickened with the dreaded plague. Aemilia will do anything in her power, even seek the help of dangerous supernatural forces, to save her only child.

This all makes for a captivating, page-turning read. O'Reilly mingles the realistic with the supernatural in a way that I haven't seen before in a work of historical fiction. She skillfully brings Elizabethan England to life with much lush, colorful detail, especially in some marvelous passages set at the Globe Theater. I was absolutely riveted by her depiction of London in the terrifying grips of the plague. And then the supernatural ... I wondered, at first, if this aspect of the novel would seem odd or out of place to me (I don't ordinarily read fantasy). But in fact, the supernatural scenes fit well, and serve to highlight the thin line between reality and magic in the superstitious minds of the English in the Elizabethan period. In this world, in which belief in witchcraft was unquestioned, it makes perfect sense that Aemilia calls upon the supernatural at her darkest hour, and I found I could fully "suspend my disbelief" to experience this part of the story.

A little knowledge of Shakespeare's works is helpful, although not required, in enjoying "Dark Aemilia." I loved O'Reilly's unique version of the events surrounding the writing of "Macbeth" and the origin of the famous curse on the "Scottish play" among theater folk. I don't know how plausible this theory is--probably not very!--but it sure makes for a fine story.

I'd offer a few small critiques here.. The love affair of Aemilia and Will didn't come alive for me until the latter half of the novel. I would have loved a little more time spent on the development of their feelings for one another. A few images in the supernatural passages of the novel may disturb more sensitive readers.

Overall, I'd rate "Dark Aemilia" about a 4.5 out of 5 stars. A terrific read, and another good example of historical fiction set in the Tudor time period. Fans of Philippa Gregory, Elizabeth Fremantle, and Hilary Mantel will find much to appreciate.

I received a free copy of the novel from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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